Tuesday, December 1, 2009

December 1: Charlie Parker, "Jazz At Massey Hall"

Artist: Charlie Parker
Album: Jazz At Massey Hall
Year: 1953 (original)/2004 (re-release)
Label: Debut/Jazz Factory

Throughout the course of music history, there have been a handful of moments that are so stunning to think about, that they almost defy logic. This is almost always due to the grouping of musicians on a given recording being so amazing that it is almost impossible to believe that they all could have been grouped together at the same time. In a majority of cases, such instances occur within the jazz world, as the intermingling of musicians is far easier and more common then in other genres. In the early 1950's, one such occurrence pulled together quite literally EVERY major player in the jazz scene of the time and put them all on the same stage simultaneously. Featuring the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charles Mingus, and Bud Powell, it goes without saying that the music produced by the group rises far above that of nearly any other jazz grouping in history. Rounding out the group and serving as their de-facto leader is perhaps the only man who could demand (and get) the unquestioning respect and following of these jazz icons, one of the few musicians who has truly changed the shape of jazz music, Charlie Parker. Though there is not a band note anywhere in the entire recorded catalog of Parker, his playing here, with the lineup that is often referred to simply as "The Quintet" is unlike anything else he ever did, and it is also understandable his finest moment. This stunning group only released one recording, yet this single release rivals nearly everything else ever recorded, and the fact that it is a live recording only makes it more impressive. Recorded live in Toronto on May 15, 1953, the performance as released later that year in the form of the truly indispensable Jazz At Masssey Hall.

Beyond the fact that there were five members in the group, there is one larger reason why this album was originally billed as "The Quintet" as opposed to a formal Parker release. At the time, Parker was in a very restrictive contract and could not record for any other label. This is the reason why not only is the album credited to "The Quintet," but Parker's name on the album is listed as "Charlie Chan," which is both a humorous allusion to the fictional detective, as well as Parker's wife, Chan. There are also two vastly different versions of the recording, both in terms of track listing as well as the sound on the record. The original 1953 release contains seven selections ("All The Things You Are" and "52nd Street Theme" are combined on this release making it six songs) from the original performance, and over-dubbed bass parts which were re-recorded by Mingus and Roach due to the original recordings having a rather low bass level. In 2004, the entire performance was re-released as Complete Jazz At Massey Hall and along with the additional tracks, the Mingus/Roach overdubs were removed, so the later release is a more authentic representation of the sound that evening in 1953. Furthermore, the re-release features a re-working of the track order, essentially splitting the original release to the ends of the records, as this more accurately portrays the way that the performance actually occurred. However, the main reason that the entire concert was not initially released is likely due to the fact that the added tracks do not contain playing from either Gillespie or Parker. Taking this into account, this review will speak of the recording quality of the re-release, yet only discuss the tracks that are found on the initial Debut release.

While it goes without saying that Parker's backing band for Jazz At Massey Hall are easily some of the most talented and iconic musicians to ever walk the earth, it is also understandable that when they are all surrounded by equally amazing talent, their playing rises to an entirely new level. While one might expect such a grouping to becoming nothing more than a competitive "ego-fest," each of the players gives one another plenty of room to let their talents shine, and due to this unselfish approach, the resulting product is one of the most musically magnificent and truly timeless performances ever captured on tape. With a number of his compositions being used, as well as being the most prominent player aside from Parker, Dizzy Gillespie was clearly in rare form on that evening in 1953. His playing is as loose as ever, and throughout the album, one can hear him shouting and adding random vocals. This in no way detracts from his playing, and like the others on the recording, Dizzy has rarely sounded as good as he does here. His solo on "A Night In Tunisia" is pure jazz bliss, though this would sadly be the final work he ever did with Parker. Almost dancing between the powerhouse playing of "Diz and Bird," Bud Powell's performance on Jazz At Massey Hall also represents the highlight of his career. Though his solo work is constantly brilliant, his solos and fills throughout this recording perfectly represent just how much being surrounded by greatness can alter a musicians' playing. It goes without saying that having a rhythm section of Charles Mingus and Max Roach is an almost unbelievable feat, and the duo does not disappoint in the least, moving the band at an amazing pace on every song. Though Mingus' playing is a bit low on the original release, it is still present enough to have all the necessary impact and he, like all of the musicians, plays flawlessly and makes May 15, 1953 a contender for "the greatest night in jazz history."

Though the other musicians on Jazz At Massey Hall are unquestionably fantastic, it is on this record that Charlie Parker proves beyond doubt that he stands among the most elite jazz players ever, as even in the presence of some of jazz's greatest players, he still stands far above his fellow band members. The one thing that always set Parker apart from his peers his combination of precision and speed, as his lines were stunningly complex when slowed down, yet the speed with which he regularly played makes such musical perfection almost unfathomable. The playing of the man they called "Yardbird" is absolutely unparalleled, and one can experience the true power of his abilities on the track "Salt Peanuts" when he simply burns up the song most likely in response to the almost "silly" lines and vocals laid down by Gillespie throughout the song. Also found on Jazz At Massey Hall is one of the most iconic jazz pieces ever written, another Gillespie tune, "A Night In Tunisia." The musical sparring between Dizzy and Bird make this into the definitive recording of the song, as the two legends push one another more and more as the song progresses. Parker's performance is even more impressive when one learns that on the evening in question, he was playing a plastic Grafton saxophone. Having sold his original horn to a pawnshop, the musicians spent the entire day of the performance searching the city for a replacement, and having no luck, Parker had no other choice then to play the plastic Grafton. Proving that it is moreso the player then the instrument that makes the difference, Charlie Parker's performance throughout Jazz At Massey Hall is easily one of the greatest overall performances in the history of recorded music.

One would think that with five jazz legends on the bill, the concert hall would have been stuffed to capacity. However, the truth of the matter is, that same evening, there was a heavyweight boxing match between Rocky Marciano and "Jersey" Joe Walcott, and the attendance at the performance suffered greatly. Clearly not concerned with how many people were there, the group that would go on to be called simply "The Quintet" blazes brilliantly through the forty-five minutes that made up the original release Jazz At Massey Hall. Though the entire concert performance would be release fifty years later, the additional tracks feature only the rhythm section, and while these tracks are certainly fantastic, without Diz and Bird, it is in many ways a completely different group. Combining the most visionary and iconic players of jazz together for a single evening, Jazz At Massey Hall remains today one of the most essential and truly timeless jazz recordings in history. From the powerful playing of Dizzy Gillespie to the sensational sounds from Bud Powell to the remarkable rhythms of Mingus and Roach, there is so much amazing music packed into every song, that one must listen to the album multiple times just to process all of the sonic brilliance. Then of course, there is Charlie Parker, and as this performance largely marks the end of his life (he tragically passed away less than two years later), one cannot think of a better way to make his final notes. Arguably the most important figure in the history of jazz music, Charlie Parker finds himself surrounded by four fellow icons, and the resulting recording, captured on 1953's Jazz At Massey Hall stands today as one of the most influential and absolutely magnificent musical moments in the entire history of recorded music.

Standout tracks: "Perdido," "Salt Peanuts," and "A Night In Tunisia."

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